Cultivated meat has been greenlit in the United States for the first time. The decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) means that a company called Upside Foods will soon be able to sell chicken made from real animal cells grown in bioreactors instead of requiring the slaughter of live animals.
A positive response from the FDA has long been seen as the next major milestone for the cultivated meat industry. In the past few years, startups in the space have built small-scale production facilities and raised billions of dollars in venture capital funding, but haven’t been able to sell their products to the public. Up until now, the small number of people invited to try cultivated meat have had to sign waivers acknowledging that the products are still experimental.
There are just two smaller regulatory steps remaining until cultivated meat can be made available to the public. Upside’s production facilities still require a grant of inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the food itself will need a mark of inspection before it can enter the US market. These two steps are likely to be completed much more quickly than the long FDA premarket consultation process that resulted in the approval.
“It’s the moment we’ve been working toward for the past, almost seven years now,” says Uma Valeti, Upside’s CEO. “Opening up the US market is what every company in the world is trying to do.”
Different startups are focusing on a range of cultivated meats, including beef, chicken, salmon, and tuna. This announcement applies only to Upside Foods and its cultured chicken, although it’s likely that other declarations will follow soon. The products have been greenlit through an FDA process called Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Through this process, food manufacturers provide the FDA with details of their production process and the product it creates, and once the FDA is satisfied that the process is safe, it then issues a “no further questions” letter.
The FDA decision means that cultivated meat products may soon be available to the public to try, although it’s likely that tastings will be limited to a very small number of exclusive restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn has already announced that she will serve Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
Valeti says that he wants the public to have their first taste of Upside chicken through selected restaurants before they can buy and cook it at home. “We would want to bring this to people through chefs in the initial stage,” says Valeti. “Getting chefs excited about this is a really big deal for us. We want to work with the best partners who know how to cook well, and also give us feedback on what we could do better.”
Atelier Crenn won’t be the first restaurant to serve cultivated meat, however. In December 2020, Singaporean regulators gave the green light to cultivated chicken from the San Francisco–based startup Eat Just. The chicken nuggets were sold at a members-only restaurant called 1880 and later made available for delivery.
Cultivated meat is different from plant-based meats because it contains real animal cells and is—theoretically—indistinguishable from real meat itself. Cells are initially isolated from an animal and developed into cell lines that are then frozen. Small samples from these cell lines can then be transferred to bioreactors—usually large steel tanks—where the cells are fed growth media containing the nutrients that cells need to divide. Once the cells have grown and differentiated into the correct kind of tissue, they can be harvested and used in cultivated meat products.